I Saw The Fourth Horse: Liverpool Psych Fest Reviewed

At the sixth mind-expanding Scouse gathering, the vibes are apocalyptic but the grooves are wild. Featuring Gnod, The Black Angels and more.

Photos courtesy of Keith Ainsworth

Ye gods – what a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride of a week that was! The president of the USA loosened bowels the world over during his inaugural speech to the UN by actually threatening the wipe a nation state off the face of the earth. It’s hard to shake the feeling that disturbed estate agent Donald Trump isn’t selling advertising space on the sides of the ICBMs pointed at North Korea having already sold exclusive TV and sponsorship rights to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, our own prime minister attempted to re-establish her authority over that blubbering bowl of fuck that is her foreign secretary so she can drive off the Brexit cliff and into the economic abyss just as she sees fit.

What’s needed at the end of such a hair-raising few days is a weekend of respite, an escape from a world seemingly hell-bent on destroying itself amid the slurry of nationalist bullshit and dick waving by narcissistic psychopaths. Right? Well, yes and no, because if you’re someone who views psychedelia simply as a form of escapist entertainment then clearly your third eye is still firmly shut. As the best bands at this year’s Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia deftly display, altered states of consciousness and the music that they inspire are less about temporarily exchanging one perception of reality for another and more about creating alternatives to the here and now having seen what truly matters.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the theme of this year’s gathering – in as much as there is one – is a world of extremes. This becomes apparent in Psych Fest’s additional displays and activities – such as the immersive installation PZYK SCAN which examines the “creative effect of audiovisual extremes on participants using EEG brain-scanning technology.” Taking a look at the blissful smiles of those punters taking part, there’s definitely something to be said for its positive effects.

But for all the installations, light shows and decorative effect, the music remains the foundation upon which this house is built and the range of countries represented by the 80 or so bands at this year’s event are a testament to the festival’s international remit – Sweden (Träd, Gräs och Stenar), Sicily (Juju), Italy (Julie’s Haircut), Mali (Songhoy Blues), France (Acid Arab) and Zambia (WITCH) are among those all present and correct. Californian independent label Castle Face – the home of Oh Sees and plenty of others purveyors of fuzz – present Irregular Orbits and a host of their acts on their own curated stage. And that’s before we even stop to consider domestic heads such as Loop, Jane Weaver and Sex Swing.

But with the tumult of the world beyond the festival still fresh in the mind, a combination of breathless applause, gum-chewing grooving and out-and-out pie-eyed wonder are the natural and appropriate reactions to the bands in here taking on what’s happening out there. Not that anyone is providing any answers – why should they? – but there’s a strange comfort to be had knowing that the art and music they make is at least asking the awkward and unpalatable questions at the forefront of our frazzled minds. The search for truth and a shared perception of reality is what’s being offered here.

In certain respects, Texans The Black Angels and Salford collective Gnod are different sides to the same coin. The former’s Death Songs, released earlier this year, is no less shy in facing up to the social and political ills of the outside world than its predecessors. Similarly, the latter’s Just Say No To The Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine is an album that squares up to 21st-century dehumanisation, alienation and desperation. And so much more besides.

Their approaches to reaching pretty much the same conclusions are wildly differing but equally satisfying. The Black Angels’ template is still very much the first-generation psychedelia of the 1960s as forged by their state compatriots and forebears The 13th Floor Elevators, a band whose espousal of chemical enlightenment and alternative value system saw them hounded into madness and destruction by the full weight of the law.

Their Saturday night headline set at the Furnace stage is a rammed and multi-coloured affair, with band logos, swirls and a variety of patterns projected onto square sheets hanging from the ceiling, bathing the audience in a succession of blues and reds. There’s a moment of disorientation when the two lefthanded guitarists in the band give the impression that we’re looking at a mirror image – but it’s a fleeting distraction before we tuck into the feast.

The bulk of The Black Angels’ set is culled from Death Songs and it’s a testament to the band’s skills that there are no grumbles with another dip into the new album. Recorded during Donald Trump’s election campaign, the combination of melody and guitar virtuosity with Alex Maas’ lyrical concerns and tremulous voice prove to be a potent mix. ‘I’d Kill For Her’ is an indictment of blind patriotism and the kind of muddled thinking that sees one country’s poor signing up to blow the shit out of another country’s poor on the whims of those with heavier pockets and ulterior profit motives. ‘Currency’ drips with menace and bile, its guitars chugging and then letting rip as Maas sneers, “Print and print the money that you spend / Spend and spend the money that you print / Then one day it’ll be all be over.”

The rocknroll suffocation of ‘Young Men Dead’ could easily be Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan so when ‘Bloodhounds On My Trail’ drops with its nods to early period Gun Club, you can’t help but take up Alex Maas’ exhortation of, “Now it’s your turn to dance!”

It’s just as well that The Black Angels arrive some 24 hours after Gnod’s cathartic, sometimes terrifying and completely overwhelming set. Such is the power and onslaught unleashed over in the relatively compact environs of the District stage that subscriptions are indeed cancelled to the resurrection. It’s game over. This ain’t rocknroll, this is the soundtrack to the coming apocalypse with music so utterly uncompromising and merciless as to make Killing Joke sound like a bunch of softies and Swans like choirboys.

Gnod’s presentation thrills and terrifies in equal measure. Here, there are no stage lights, just a single, angular installation that hangs behind the band. Consequently, Gnod are shrouded in total darkness, a visual abyss that eventually stares back at you and deep into your heart, your psyche and your soul. This is armageddon and, like it or not, we’re all invited. No need to RSVP because we’re all going to be there as we turn to ash and dust and blow away into the endless void.

There’s no dancing, just a hypnotic bobbing of heads to acknowledge submission and total surrender to this howl of bottomless rage. People don’t walk out after this performance; they stagger into the night gasping for air and praying that their minds remain intact the following morning, assuming that the world hasn’t blown up by then.

This isn’t to suggest that the Liverpool International Festival Of Psychedelia has been a bad trip; far from it. As evidenced by the psych-pop joy of Jane Weaver, Endless Boogie’s gloriously redacted take on the blues or Fujiya & Miyagi’s glorious kosmische-inflected disco that brings the festival to a close in the small hours of Sunday morning, this has been a widescreen affair that once again proves to be an unadulterated hit of the undiluted stuff. But don’t let it be said that psychedelia that is an exercise in burying one’s head in the sand. If anything, the head is opened up and exposed to a world of possibility and wonder. It’s the approach of The Black Angels and Gnod that lingers once the mind’s fuzz has cleared. Here’s to the next hit.

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